The West wasn’t won, nor was it discovered. The West was taken. The West was conquered. The West was stolen. For generations and centuries, Americans have grappled with reconciling this original sin, be it by way of whitewashed mythology or self-flagellating apologia. And for more than a hundred years, the great stage of this struggle has been at the movies, that all-American medium of art and commerce. Dreams and lies.
Martin Scorsese is of course aware of this. He loves the classic Westerns of Golden Age Hollywood with their fairy dust, and when he broke into the business, nihilistic and overly self-critical “deconstructions” were all the rage. Yet by finally making good on his promise to go west for a cinematic epic, the filmmaker made neither type of film. He didn’t even make a Western. Killers of the Flower Moon is a reckoning, as sprawling as it is merciless; a sober-eyed view of the greed, hatred, and largely white desire for always, forever, more, even long after the West has been “won.”
This is the story of the Osage Nation, a Native American people who saw their lands stolen time and again. Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas. One after the other, they were driven off, vanished by white governments and broken promises until they wound up on a hard and unforgiving spot of territory in Oklahoma. Osage County was so desolate, surely white men would never want it. And they didn’t until the early 20th century when oil was discovered there.
For a time, the black gold made members of the Osage Nation the richest people in the world per capita. Their children went to European schools, and in their towns the white men drove them around in chauffeured cars. Yet if you looked into those pale faces and subservient eyes, you might recognize more than obsequiousness. Two such pupils belong to Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a handsome if aging dirt-kicker whose good looks got him further than his dim intellect ever would. But after returning from World War I, the best he can manage is acting as a driver to Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), an Osage woman and thus a member of a tribe with equal shares in the headrights produced by oil sales.
The film isn’t coy about how all the white buzzards circling the new Osage money want that oil either. Some of the whites can be playful about it, such as Ernest who seems genuinely smitten with Mollie. She rightly likens those blue eyes of his to that of a hungry coyote—not that she’s against feeding the dog. More sinister though is Ernest’s uncle who invited the young(er) man to Osage County: William Hale (Robert De Niro).
An ingratiating and grandfatherly presence, De Niro’s Hale has insinuated himself into the Osage culture so thoroughly that many Indigenous people treat him as an unofficial patriarch of the community, a great white father who pays for new schools and roads. He’s such a charming devil that no one minds when he sets both his nephews up into marrying Osage women, with Ernest’s brother running wild with Mollie’s free-spirited sister Anna (Cara Jade Myers). But a smile can mask so many sins, and Hale’s bottomless avarice is revealed every time another Osage man or woman turns up dead. At first it seems to be natural causes or “wasting illnesses,” but soon all pretense is dropped as the dizzying amount of bodies grow, including nearly every other person Mollie holds dear. Every one of them, except dear, sweet, innocent Ernest. The coyote.
Much has been made in the press about how screenwriters Eric Roth and Scorsese inverted the structure and even emphasis of David Grann’s nonfiction masterpiece, upon which the film is based. The book is told primarily from the perspective of Mollie and then the investigating FBI agent Tom White (Jesse Plemons) who slowly uncovers the full, stunning breadth of the conspiracy until the reader is drowning in evil. Scorsese pretty much tells you who the killers are when De Niro’s grinning twinkle turns cold and he asks Ernest if he likes Mollie. This is within the first 20 minutes of a three and a half hour film.
What’s striking about the approach is how banal the white greed and cynicism at the heart of the story becomes. There’s never a chilling scene where Hale wholly articulates the horror of his scheme to Ernest or any other minion, nor is there a big actor’s showcase for either man grappling with the depravity of what is occurring. It goes mostly unspoken, a slaughter that is as natural and mundane to them as American racism. This extends to the many scenes of murder and execution of Native Americans.
Scorsese largely eschews the stylized violence or filmmaking machismo that accompanies, say, Joe Pesci giving Billy Batts his shine box, or Bill the Butcher painting the Five Points of New York in two coats of red. Virtually all murder sequences in Killers of the Flower Moon are filmed in single wide shots, letting the camera’s deceptive disinterest hold the viewer’s face up against the factual evil that was carried out on a nigh industrial scale. It achieves the candidness of a clinical documentary.
Yet for all the barbarity of the film’s so-called civilizing forces, this isn’t just about the murders. At a gargantuan runtime, it is many things, including a twisted love story. Much of the initial warmth, indeed, comes from what is a disarming courtship between Ernest and Mollie. DiCaprio and Gladstone have a crackling chemistry, and the first hour of their manufactured meet-cute and eventual marriage provides the film with a false sense of serenity and charm.
DiCaprio is excellent at playing a man too dumb or too delusional to see why his uncle is driving him toward this marriage, but the effect makes much of the film about a reluctant Charles Boyer reenacting Gaslight. We’d even argue that too much of the film is devoted to the lies Ernest tells, including to himself, when the real powerhouse of the film is Gladstone’s Mollie. A towering performance of quiet strength being sapped dry by her husband’s deceptions, Gladstone deserves every accolade that will come her way this awards season. Mollie is a laconic woman, but the rueful smile on her lips during Ernest’s first overtures, and the fading resignation as her will to know the truth is being snuffed out is the true heart of the film.
Reportedly, Scorsese and DiCaprio aborted the book’s structure because they didn’t want to make yet another “white savior” film that centered on FBI agent Tom White (the role DiCaprio was originally pegged for). That’s admirable, but perhaps DiCaprio didn’t need the lead role at all if he must play Ernest. Admittedly, this is a character with a Shakespearean trajectory of rich self-destruction, but rather than centering on the bad men, the film might’ve been sharpened (and certainly shortened) if Mollie’s sense of betrayal was the dramatic arc of the picture.
At nearly four hours in length, The Killers of the Flower Moon is evidently all things to Scorsese: an ode to the Osage Nation and by extension the many Indigenous cultures exploited and wiped out by “manifest destiny” and other euphemisms for American wantonness. But it’s also a crime movie, and finally a legal drama as a white government at last flinches at cowboys killing Indians. The scene of Ernest’s pure befuddlement when he meets a lawman who isn’t on his uncle’s take—and thus legitimately concerned about who is killing the Native Americans—has a grim gallows humor to it.
The film’s desire to give full exploration to every one of these avenues does make it indulgent in a way other three-hour Scorsese epics are not. Killers heavily luxuriates in its subjects of love, hate, and Osage grace. Nonetheless, it remains as gripping a piece of cinema as any you will see this year, and among its bad men features one of the finest, and most chilling, performances in De Niro’s storied career. William Hale might even be the most vile creation ever realized by an actor who’s also played Al Capone and Jimmy Conway. The actor recently has spoken about the nature of evil in modern figureheads of American racism, and there’s a folksy knowingness toward the timeliness of this character too.
While Hale might be the culmination of Killers of the Flower Moon’s conspiracy, he is just one thread in a larger national tapestry of pitiless conquest. Scorsese wrestles with this in a film that in many ways feels like the final word on the Hollywood Western, just as he’s wrestling with how to recenter it. Hence even though the film is told through the eyes of the killers, the movie has the grace to end on the Osage themselves. It’s the twin thread in a shared story; this one of survival, endurance, and a charity of spirit that makes for an American reclamation. Scorsese sees both sides, but it’s obvious which he hopes will carry forward.
Killers of the Flower Moon opens wide on Friday, Oct. 20.